After having shown and told you a lot about the naturalistic beauties of Réunion, we can no longer avoid this new chapter: the towns. In fact, although the large inhabited centers of the coast are very distant from the ancient traditions of the island, they have many stories to reveal and many secrets to tell, which are hidden behind the facades of the beautiful Creole palaces. In this article we will show you what to see in the main coastal towns of Réunion, but most of all in its capital Saint-Denis, the gateway to the island.
Leggi in italiano ⇒ clicca qui
A quiet colonial-style town, with low-rise buildings in soft colors, including some well-preserved Creole dwellings. Take a walk on the wooden boardwalk of the promenade and admire the beautiful black sand beach but be aware that bathing is prohibited here as the beach is not protected from sharks. Lose yourself in its streets, where you will find cafes and souvenir shops, in particular we suggest a stop at the Antonin Boulangerie Patisserie bakery to buy excellent bread with olives or with cheese. Furthermore, on the Hauts of Saint-Paul there is the Musée historique de Villèle, a colonial building that belonged to the family of the same name, still surrounded by the ruins of the ancient refinery, evidence of the past cultivation and processing of sugar cane.
Grotte des Premiers Français (Cave of the First French)
It is a place full of meaning for the inhabitants of Réunion. In fact, this seems to be the cave where the first French settlers took refuge after their landing on the Réunion coast in 1665. It is located in a nice park, where you can walk and have a picnic, but the cave’s area is not opened to the public…if you want to see it more closely, it will be your responsibility to enter the site. Works have been planned for some years to make the area safe. The cave was formed due to the erosive action of the tides on the cliff, in fact in the area in front of it you can see piles of sand transported here by the sea and the wind. A spring originates near the cave, forming a small waterfall along the rocky wall. At the entrance to the park you will find a large car park and a bar/restaurant; access to the park is free of charge.
Cimetière Marin (Marine Cemetery)
Once again we are inviting you to visit a cemetery. Don’t be skeptical, it will amaze you. You might look for some notable graves, such as those of pirates or famous people of the past. For example, here lie the remains of Olivier Levasseur, a famous pirate of the 18th century, whose treasure was never found, or even the poet Eugène Dayot and the painter Arthur Grimaud, or the French poet Leconte De Lisle, on whose tomb are engraved verses taken from his works: “Maintenant, dans le sable aride de nos grèves, Sous les chiendents, au bruit des mers, Tu reposes parmi les morts qui me sont chers, O charme de mes premiers rêves!” (Translation: “Now, in the arid sand of our shores, Under the weed, to the sound of the seas, You rest among the dead who are dear to me, O charm of my first dreams!”)
But don’t forget to take a look at the wonderful mini gardens created on the tombs themselves…why cut flowers when the mild climate of the island allows them to grow and bloom directly on the tomb throughout the year?! The entrance to the cemetery is free and you can park your car at the site of the Grotte des Premiers Français, exactly on the opposite side of the road. Don’t miss the view of the beautiful black beach, accessible directly from the back of the cemetery.
This inhabited center represents the beating heart of Réunion, its central streets are always very busy, you will find many shops, bakeries and restaurants, but also many interesting colonial buildings. On Saturday morning the market is held on the seafront, with stalls about all kind of stuff (food, fruits and vegetables, handicrafts), if you are there at the right time it is worth a visit, especially to get in touch with the local culture. The church of Saint-Pierre, dating back to 1765, the Chinese temple, the Tamil temple, the huge mosque, the prefecture palace, the town hall and the small fishing district Terre Sainte are the most interesting things to see. The small beach is also very popular, sheltered by a stretch of coral reef.
Capital of Réunion since 1738, Saint-Denis is a must visit. In fact, there are numerous colonial buildings dating back to the 19th century, that was the period of its maximum splendor thanks to the sugar market. Most of these buildings can be seen walking along Rue de Paris, Ave de la Victoire, Rue Pasteur and Rue Jean Chatel. Let’s see what are the main attractions to consider in a day.
Jardin de l’Etat (State Garden)
We park the car outside the fences of this garden and enter. The garden is lush, the botanical species are many, mostly brought here by Pierre Poivre. You can breathe tranquility walking next to the long pool with gushing fountains. Our attention is captured by the works of art installed along the perimeter of the tank depicting inhabitants of the island with diverse ornithological species…probably a temporary installation. There are also the Natural History Museum and a circular aviary, containing various species of parrots…plus a few fugitives who pass by for a stealth visit.
Rue de Paris
It is undoubtedly the most famous street in the capital, as well as the one that most of all deserves to be traveled to get an idea of the 19th century colonial Creole architecture. Next to the buildings of greater interest you will also find explanatory signs that tell you their stories. The road starts from the Jardin de l’Etat and extends to the war memorial, so following our itinerary you will already find yourself in the right place for exploring the city. The historic and government buildings that you will encounter on both sides of the street are the following:
- the Villa du Département, which houses the Conseil Général de la Réunion – Direction de la Culture, is a very elegant Creole building, with its veranda and decorative lambrequins applied on the upper part of the doors and windows;
- the Ancien Hotel de Ville, that is the town hall of Saint-Denis, with its imposing columns is considered the most beautiful building in the city, but certainly not the most characteristic;
- the Musée Léon Dierx, inside the former bishop’s palace, is a museum that houses works by the Reunionese painter Léon Dierx (1838-1912), but also the most important modern art collection in all of Réunion;
- the Maison Déramond-Barre, birthplace of the artist Léon Dierx and home to the family of French Prime Minister Raymond Barre. It has the particularity of having been built in several phases. Today, after a careful restoration, it houses the Service Départemental de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine (SDAP);
- the Artothèque, a contemporary art gallery with temporary exhibitions of works by local artists;
- the Maison Carrère, a magnificent Creole-style residence with a veranda and cornices decorated with lambrequins. The house and its gardens can be visited; at the entrance you will find an image with a photo of the family who lived there and you can learn about its history. The building also houses the tourist office.
To these buildings are added the Prefecture (on Place de la Préfecture), the Maison Kichenin (on Rue Labourdonnaise) and the Banque de la Réunion (on Rue Jean Chatel).
Cathédrale de Saint-Denis de la Réunion
A building set along Ave de la Victoire, which we come across almost by chance. The cathedral has undergone a major restoration that has made it brighter inside. The paintings by Jean Jouvenet that adorned the apse have disappeared. In front of the cathedral there is a small garden with trees and benches where you can make a short stop.
A historical place, where you will find a row of cannons pointing towards the Indian Ocean. Stroll along this stretch of seafront and let yourself be mesmerized by the waves breaking on the rocks (yes, because, as you will see, there are no beaches in Saint-Denis).
Rue du Maréchal Leclerc
This is the shopping street of Saint-Denis. Here the elegance and majesty of the historic buildings gives way to the sparkle of the shop windows, the comings and goings of people and the general chatter. A very busy pedestrian street, around the corner you will feel like you have entered almost another dimension!
Unmissable stop for tourists looking for the most particular and hard to find souvenirs. It is in fact a large permanent covered market that sells pieces of local crafts: wooden objects, straw bags, embroidered fabrics, kitchen utensils, clothes and much more. We were prepared for the worst, we expected the climate of one of the typical Indian bazaars, full of colors, noises and confusion and instead we found a strangely uncrowded place for tourists, where we could rummage calmly and undisturbed among the various stalls. We don’t know if it is always in this way, but in August yes.
Pâtisseries and boulangeries
Apparently Saint-Denis inherited the art of pastry from the greatest French masters! In fact, along its streets you will come across pastry shops with windows overflowing with delicacies. Eclaire, fruit tarts, macarons, colorful single portions, shimmering mirror glazes and puffy wisps of cream will induce even the most skeptical ones to take a gourmand break. We made a stop at La Cardinale (on Rue Juliette Dodu) and at the Boulangerie Paul Barachois (on Avenue de la Victoire), very pleasant with its neat interiors and checkerboard floors.
Our journey through the historical-artistic beauties of La Réunion ends here, but we suggest you be curious and attentive observers. Only in this way will you grasp details that can escape the hasty and superficial tourist and learn to distinguish the authentic Creole style from European influences. In fact, the Creole style is reflected in the pastel colors, the sloping sheet metal roofs and the white decorative lambrequins…have fun looking for it in every village or inhabited center you will pass through, you could find small unexpected architectural jewels.
See you soon
You may be interested also in:
- REUNION – Itineraries, tips and everything tourist guides do not say
- REUNION – Excursion to the Moon? No, it’s the Piton de la Fournaise
- REUNION – The circuses of Mafate, Salazie and Cilaos, a UNESCO World Heritage site
- REUNION – The most beautiful beaches where you can swim safely
- REUNION – Breathe in the culture of the island through the Creole Villages circuit
- REUNION – The most scenic waterfalls to see on the island
- REUNION – Let’s cook together the potatoes and cheese samosas